On March 10, 1977, Roman Polanski, director of Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby, drove 13-year-old Samantha Jane Gailey to the home of Jack Nicholson, where Polanski had promised to take some pictures for Vogue magazine. Polanski gave her a Quaalude and told her to remove her clothes to join him in Nicholson’s jacuzzi. Before the night was over, Polanski had raped her. In 1979, he pled guilty to statutory rape, but fled to France before sentencing.
In 2003, Polanski won the Academy Award for Best Director for The Pianist. As recently as October 2017, the Cinematheque Francaise honored him with a retrospective of his work. In Polanski’s case, the entertainment industry has followed the axiom of Oscar Wilde: “The fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose.”
Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C. K., and others haven’t been so lucky. Weinstein has been expelled from the Academy. House of Cards was cancelled and Spacey was scrubbed from an upcoming film, All the Money in the World. Criminal investigations have been launched. The perpetrators have disappeared into therapy.
Things have changed, but have they changed for the better? Should we despise movies made by despicable men? Are we right to direct the same moral outrage at the art as we do against the artist? Should we, as Claire Dederer put it, feel “a little urpy” when we see Woody Allen dating a teenaged Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan? Who’s right—the aesthetes or the moralists?
Wilde has his sophisticated defenders, not all of them libertines. In Creative Intuition, Jacques Maritain quotes Wilde’s aphorism while drawing a distinction between artistic skill and the virtue of prudence. Art is, in Aristotelian terms, “making” (poiesis) not “doing” (praxis); the first is the realm of craft, the second the realm of ethics. The good of making doesn’t lie in the maker or in what art does to a reader or viewer. The good of art is internal to the art, in the quality of the thing itself. A well-made object is good even if it has evil effects, and a vicious artist can be true to his art. As Maritain says, “If only he contrives a good piece of woodwork or jewelry, the fact of a craftsman’s being spiteful or debauched is immaterial.”
But Maritain isn’t a straightforward disciple of Wilde. Art, he says, shouldn’t be subordinated to extra-artistic aims, whether manipulative propaganda or sincere religious instruction. Yet beauty can’t finally be separated from truth and goodness. While philosophy rightly isolates “art in itself,” in reality art “exists in a human being—the artist.”
Art is an activity of intelligence rather than will, and so it responds to what is real and makes claims about reality. While recognizing that art trades in fictions, we still need to ask whether those fictions are true.
Similarly, moral “ineptitude . . . can easily spill over into other ineptitudes.” Artistic “virtue” can itself be a moral defect that undermines art. An artist might, Maritain suggests, “endeavor to taste all the fruits and silts of the earth, and will make curiosity or recklessness in any new moral experiment or vampiric singularity his supreme moral virtue, in order to feed his art.” Rowan Williams offers the example of a narcissistic artist who misshapes his materials to indulge in sheer self-expression. His art is flawed because it aims at something other than the good of the artistic product. Williams concludes that we cannot evade making the moral and metaphysical judgment of “whether a world laid before us by an artist is desirable for the kind of creatures we know ourselves to be.”
This article continues at [First Things] Can Moral Monsters Make Good Movies?